Publishers’ Bad Habits, Now Glutting the iPhone

Publishers are hungry for as much data as they can get on how the written word is consumed online and on mobile devices. (Or they better be.) Unfortunately, honey traps abound which lead to specious logic and flawed conclusions. Take the latest stats from the iPhone/iPod Touch App Store. In October there were more new book apps than gaming apps, the previous top category. Gizmodo succinctly phrased this as “iPhone Ebooks: The New Fart Apps.”

O’Reilly’s Ben Lorica, possibly my favorite media statistician on the web, breaks this down even further, noting the quantity of book apps does nothing more than glut the app store. Games continue to outsell and outrank books on almost every metric. (See Lorica’s chart.)

O'Reilly Radar

And let’s not forget that several of the top paid children’s book apps, like Duck Duck Moose’s “Itsy Bitsy Spider“, are listed in the games category. And why not? For picture books with light animation, the distinction between “book” and “game” disappears.

What we’re really seeing is a recreation of the industry’s bad habits in the App Store.

I subscribe to the belief that the print book industry is suffering from publishing too many books. The average reader is easily overwhelmed, and so relies on their friends and trusted sources to discern what’s worth reading. This would work if everyone’s friends weren’t increasingly interested in other, more exciting media, and if the notion of a trusted source remained static. We all know a front-page rave in the New York Times Book Review doesn’t mean what it used to. The most common reason cited by friends why they don’t read as many books as they used to? It’s impossible to know what’s good. Every week another 25 “amazing literary debuts” and “spellbinding journeys of the heart” and “adventures into the mysterious underworld of sexy vampires.”

…So before I go off on a rant, I’ll just say this: we’ve done the same thing to the app store that we’ve done to the book market. I counted over 600 book apps a few weeks ago. iTunes isn’t built for browsing or highlighting apps specific to your taste. If you’re not in the top ten in your category, you’re sunk. If you’re a publicist with a debut author, this should sound familiar.

Which is where marketing comes in, right? It’s not enough to create the app, you have to tell people about it. You have to put in the work and find that audience.

Well, yes and no. Of course marketing and publicity are important — you don’t think T-Pain and Smule made $3 million purely on word-of-mouth, do you? But publishers need to rethink the book apps the same way they need to rethink the print market. Don’t just wrap your ebook in a reader template and shove it off to customers. They’re used to playing games, watching video, checking the weather, and using Shazam, Skype, and Evernote on this device. It’s on us, the publishers, to rise to that new consumer expectation. (Nick Cave’s Death of Bunny Munro app is a step in the right direction, though 894MBs is a bit cumbersome.)

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5 Comments

Filed under ebooks, industry, mobile

5 responses to “Publishers’ Bad Habits, Now Glutting the iPhone

  1. Pingback: The Daily Square – Edition | Booksquare

  2. For some reason, while I was reading your (excellent) post, I kept flashing on the WordPress Plugins directory. It’s comprehensive, in the same way that the three-foot-tall stack of notes on your desk might be said to be comprehensive, and equally useful.

    Filtering is a big problem. The ability of marketing to attract, distract, and outright lie is a big problem. The lack of a reliable benchmarking/testing service for all of these apps is a big problem.

    (As an aside, I still can’t get over the fact that nobody talks about the service life of electronics, and this has been going on for decades. $1,500 for a cutting-edge intro-level DSLR? Can you tell me how long those circuits are actually going to last? I’d also like to think that quality wins out in the end, but the Qwerty keyboard is a reminder of how things work in the real world.)

    Where are the reliable, consumer-friendly tech voices? Who is worth listening to? Who is willing to put functionality ahead of all else? Those are the fliters I think we need most, but everyone’s margins are so thin these days that nobody’s willing to call any advertiser out for junk product. Hence the glut.

    Money works in mysterious ways. Particularly in a down economy.

  3. Curation + Marketing is key, whether print or electronic, but I think mobile apps need to be viewed as a completely new format, something beyond the book, and not just a portable replication of the print product. Interactivity, immersion and localization will be the key elements for creating killer apps, and both publishers and authors will need to approach the format very differently than they’re used to.

    • chapmanchapman

      Exactly. My mind tends to run towards gaming as a possible jumping-off point, since mobile devices’ functionality rewards utilizing the quest narrative, discoverability, and interactivity which are part and parcel of ARGs and other games. But what will be really exciting are the new offshoots, the weird stuff that comes out of left field. (I always think about how weird Joyce’s and Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness must have been to readers in the 1910s.)

    • Scott Johnson

      Agreed. eBooks can never beat paper books at their own game. While beautiful page turn animations are fun to play with, in the end they are a gimmick. How can we take advantage of the incredible computing power at our disposal to create a reading experience that has it’s own advantages, that is better than paper in its own way? Perhaps the new QuickReader app is a step in that direction.

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